‘Bret Spooner, Demotech Production Operative, reporting status from the mining ship Kestrel IV. Production is on schedule. There were a couple of malfunctions with the mining drills yesterday, but nothing I couldn’t fix. Otherwise everything is running smoothly here. How are things back home? It’d be nice to hear more from you guys. Five years is a long trip to take alone, you know? A long, long trip.’
He looked off to the side and rubbed his shoulder as he often did now. It still pained him even a year after the accident on the manufacturing deck. Remembering the message he snapped his unfocused gaze back to the monitor.
‘So, pretty uneventful up here,’ he paused. ‘Okay, end of report I guess. Bret, out,’ he ended the message and sent it. The distance the signal would have to travel both ways meant a response would not arrive for at least two hours. The time delay between communications made Bret feel truly isolated. He could not remember the last time he had a real time conversation with anyone other than himself.
He slumped back in the chair and stared at the tarnished metal ceiling. He could just make out the sound of the machines running on the manufacturing deck, like a far off motorway in the stillness of the night. Picking up his book from the console he moved over to the bed in the corner and began reading. The Roadside Picnic. A Russian science fiction novel from the 20th century.
Before he had finished a page he heard the familiar sound of his own voice. Looking over he saw himself in the chair by the console, hunched forward, speaking the same words he had just recorded.
He no longer felt fear or surprise at seeing himself. It was a regular occurrence now. He wondered if being aware that what he was seeing was imaginary meant that he still held on to some thread of his sanity. Then again he was seeing things that were not really there, so how could he trust any thought that arose from his mind. The mental acrobatics were exhausting.
He checked the clock. Past midnight. Knowing sleep would not come yet, and unable to focus on reading with the sound of his own voice distracting him, he decided to get up and do some work. Tossing the novel on the pile of books by his bed, he exited the room leaving his hallucination behind.
Bret stepped out of the lift on to the manufacturing deck. The rhythmic vibrations of the machinery travelled through the metal floor. He grabbed a tablet from the wall station and moved towards the start of the production line.
* * *
The caustic smell of impurities vaporising under extreme heat stung his nose as he approached the line of furnaces. The regolith mined from the asteroid beneath the ship travelled up through these towering electric furnaces which extracted the usable elements. The refined materials were then sent on conveyor belts to different processing stations that meshed across the length of the deck.
He followed the whirring conveyors, marking the tablet as he checked the systems. Apart from an electrical fault on one of the copper presses, which he quickly fixed, everything was operating perfectly.
Hearing footsteps he looked up to see himself sprint across the deck. He watched until the copy disappeared from view behind the machinery. Bret frowned. He did not remember that happening. The copies always mimicked past events. Shaking his head, he tried to put it out of his mind and carried on with the checks.
Nearing the end of the line he picked up one of the finished products. A blue circuit board the size of his hand, stamped with complex patterns. The universal XZ-27 processing unit. Perfected years ago it was now used in practically everything, from spaceships to televisions, due to its cheap manufacturing cost and efficient processing power. It was the sole reason he was here, alone on a ship, perched on the edge of an asteroid, too far from home.
Having finished the routine checks he decided to head for the kitchen to get something to eat. As he rounded one of the belts he stumbled over something. Sprawling to the floor he slid in to the base of a machine. The tablet lay broken nearby. He cursed, rubbing his shoulder.
Looking back he saw a creature curled up in the centre of the floor. So unbalanced now, his mind was not just hallucinating copies of himself but alien lifeforms as well. He sighed. He was so tired of this, he just wanted to go home.
The creature resembled a terrestrial wolf in size and shape – four legs, elongated muzzle, tail wrapped around itself. Instead of fur it was covered in something resembling snake skin – shiny and textured, the faded grey of old duct tape. Having been disturbed, the creature slowly uncurled itself and stretched.
Curious, Bret pulled himself upright and moved closer. The creature dropped in to a crouch and began to hiss at him. Bret found himself staring in to fiercely intelligent grey eyes. A doubt crossed his mind. What if he wasn’t imagining this? He shrugged the thought off. There had never been any record of aliens before; probability told him it was just another creation of his own obscured mind.
The creature leapt towards him. He cried out in pain as pointed teeth sank in to the flesh of his leg. He kicked the creature against the side of the nearest machine. It spun across the floor before finding its feet. Looking down at the blood seeping in to his jumpsuit, Bret realised this was no hallucination.
He noticed movement in his peripheral vision. More of the creatures slowly appeared, climbing over machinery and crawling under the conveyor belts. Too many to count. He knew he couldn’t fight so many of them. He had to get to the Bridge and activate the ship’s automated defenses. He turned and sprinted, weaving through the production lines. Panic drove him forward as the sound of frenzied footsteps followed closely behind him.
* * *
Reaching the Bridge he slammed the door behind him and sealed it. His heart racing, he tried to think. He had to take control of the ship. Breathing heavily he jumped in to the pilot seat and began tapping commands in to the console. Automatic turrets extended from hidden panels all over the ship. They were pre-programmed to target everything except Demotech employees whose bio signatures were coded in to the system. The company took their trade secrets seriously and would not let the ship fall in to the wrong hands. He thanked their paranoia as gunfire erupted throughout the ship.
He flicked through the security cameras to watch the carnage. Creatures boiled out of every shadow on the ship as the gunfire drew them. He watched them fall one after another as the turrets did their job.
The creatures did not stop coming though. They overwhelmed a turret and ripped it to pieces. A camera went dead. More turrets went down. Another camera feed dropped.
Holding his breath, Bret heard the last of the gunfire sputter out.
The silence was more deafening than the ringing left in his ears.
Checking the few remaining cameras he saw the manufacturing deck. There were hundreds of the creatures in there, pacing around the deck, clambering over each other like one huge organism. Conveyor belts and robotic arms lay scattered around the floor, and the processing units were cracked open, wildly arcing electricity.
A furious thudding started outside the door. Bret whirled around. They were trying to break their way in. The door was sturdy and would probably hold for a while but he could not hope to fight them off. He looked out of the front screen at the asteroid. Countless more of the creatures jumped around in the low gravity, all heading towards him.
The ship was compromised. The defenses were down. The manufacturing deck was a smoking ruin. There was only one option left.
It was not an easy task to self-destruct a ship this size. The company made sure of that. They did not want any financially ruinous accidents. But then even they would prefer it scattered to the stars rather than have their technology fall in to the hands of someone else. He overrode the fail safes and confirmed the command.
‘Self-destruct sequence initiated. Sixty seconds until detonation.’
He rushed to the bank of escape pods against the far wall and climbed inside the nearest one. There were no manual controls inside as the pods were programmed to automatically return to Earth. He strapped himself in and punched the emergency launch.
As the the pod’s hatch snapped in the place he saw the Bridge door fly across the room and cut the pilot seat in half before embedding itself in the console. The escape pod dropped away from the ship as the thrusters fired. The intensity of the acceleration forced him back against the seat.
Once clear of the ship, a blue light blinked on above his head. He felt the familiar drowsiness of the cryosleep systems activating. As he began to lose consciousness he looked back through the viewport. The ship evaporated in a blinding flash, eerily silent in the vacuum of space. Bret braced himself as the shock wave diffused, violently staggering the pod. Once it had passed and calm descended, he looked back to see no sign of the ship and half of the asteroid gone. Out of the expanding debris, two escape pods surged after him.
© 2015, Gavin Zanker.